Justice minister commits to targeted bail reform to address repeat violent offenders
OTTAWA — Justice Minister David Lametti says the federal government will move forward quickly on "targeted reforms" to the Criminal Code that would update Canada's bail system.
He made the commitment on Friday afternoon after what he called a "good and productive" meeting with Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino and their provincial and territorial counterparts.
"We have a broad consensus on a path forward," Lametti told reporters, saying reforms will aim to address the challenges posed by repeat violent offenders and those facing firearms or other weapons charges.
"Bail is a constitutional right, but it is not absolute," he said.
"Our laws are clear that bail can be denied where there is just cause, when it is necessary for the safety of the public or to maintain the public’s confidence in the administration of justice."
Premiers, federal Conservatives and law enforcement leaders have ramped up pressure on Ottawa since the beginning of the year to make bail more restrictive.
A January letter from all 13 premiers to the prime minister called for a "reverse onus" system for some offences, which would require a person seeking bail to prove why they should not stay behind bars.
Lametti would not comment on whether those specific provisions are coming but said it is something the government is considering.
Ontario Justice Minister Doug Downey told reporters that it was raised during the meeting, but he was coy about whether any promises had been made.
"We felt heard. There was a lot of collaboration. I look forward to action sooner than later," he said.
According to the meeting's agenda, the discussion on targeted bail laws included talks on two subjects: "reverse onus" and "other measures."
The agenda also included discussion about enforcement and prosecution, improving bail monitoring and breach enforcement, as well as preventive measures.
Alberta Justice Minister Tyler Shandro said provinces were told changes will be introduced in the next legislative session.
"We don't have any specific proposals yet," he said.
Kelvin Goertzen of Manitoba called Lametti's commitment "an important first step."
Bronwyn Eyre, Saskatchewan's justice minister, said there was a constructive attitude at the table.
"It looks as if this will be a positive outcome," she said. "We're very, very pleased."
Calls for reform heightened in response to the death of Ontario Provincial Police officer Const. Greg Pierzchala in late December.
Court documents showed one of the two people facing a first-degree murder charge in his death, Randall McKenzie, was initially denied bail in a separate case involving assault and weapons charges but was released after a review.
The documents show a warrant was issued for McKenzie’s arrest after he didn’t show up for a court date in August.
On Friday, Lametti referred to Pierzchala's death as a "catalyst for change."
A press release said the ministers "agreed that the bail system functions appropriately in many but not all cases."
It said other changes could be made at the federal or provincial level, including improving data collection and training and funding programming to combat gender-based violence.
Lametti said the justice ministers agreed any measures they pursue in the name of public safety must not undermine efforts to address the overrepresentation of Indigenous and Black people in the criminal justice system.
Officials from Prince Edward Island acted as observers because of the province's ongoing election campaign.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 10, 2023.
David Fraser, The Canadian Press